(NBC News) -- Departing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta extended Monday a list of benefits — all previously denied by the Pentagon — to the same-sex spouses of service members as well as to the unmarried partners of gay troops.
While advocates for gay and lesbian service members and their families hailed Panetta's policy switch as "substantive" and "encouraging," the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) still blocks the DOD from enacting more than 85 other benefits now provided to heterosexual military spouses and their children — most notably medical and dental care, housing allowances, and death benefits.
Panetta said DOMA is "now being reviewed by the United States Supreme Court — and he offered his first clear signal that the Pentagon wants that law overturned.
"There are certain benefits that can only be provided to spouses as defined by that law," Panetta said. "While it will not change during my tenure as secretary of defense, I foresee a time when the law will allow the department to grant full benefits to service members and their dependents, irrespective of sexual orientation. Until then, the department will continue to comply with current law while doing all we can to take care of all soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and their families."
Same-sex advocates have been pushing the DOD to extend full benefits to the spouses and partners of all U.S. service members since the repeal 17 months of ago of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy which prohibited gay troops from revealing their sexual orientation.
"At the time of repeal, I committed to reviewing benefits that had not previously been available to same-sex partners based on existing law and policy." Panetta said. "It is a matter of fundamental equity that we provide similar benefits to all of those men and women in uniform who serve their country ...
"Taking care of our service members and honoring the sacrifices of all military families are two core values of this nation. Extending these benefits is an appropriate next step under current law to ensure that all service members receive equal support for what they do to protect this nation.